Chicken Crossing

Chapter One

 The Irresistible Allure of a Brace of Bald Rats


Shelby squinted through the glass at the decorative rodent castle. Where were those furry cuties? No, she corrected herself. Where were those bald-but-still-adorable cuties? A twitchy nose poked around the plastic castle wall and gave a tentative sniff in her direction. Ah, the store owner was correct. The bald rats were indeed adorable in every way. Large ears that looked soft as velvet … or the bald equivalent to velvet that is. Bright, intelligent eyes and tiny scratchy-scratchy paws.

Yes, her friend Brianna’s family needed these rats. They just didn’t know it yet, blinded as they were by sorrow. When Brianna’s husband Gerald had developed unexpected allergies, the constant sneezing sent a beloved, but hairy, family dog to live permanently with Brianna’s mother. The children were heartbroken. Clearly, they needed some bald rats post haste. She checked the latest text from her friend.

No need to go out of your way, Shelby. I don’t want to see you scouring the internet for bald dogs and cats. It means so much that you thought of us. Just bring a casserole if you want to help.

Shelby smiled down at her phone. It was no trouble, no trouble at all. But just in case … . Deftly, Shelby crossed both “bald dog” and “bald cat” off of her list. There, she’d heeded her friend’s subtle hints and now it was time to take action. The bald rats would be perfection itself. Frolicsome enough for the children, bald enough for Gerald, and small enough that Brianna wouldn’t even notice their adorable presence.

First step, purchase the necessary rat-ownership-paraphernalia! She needed a large terrarium, food and water dispensers, sawdust, food pellets, rodent play structures, a collapsible tunnel, hanging rat toys, totable rat toys, a teeny tiny rat harness and leash, a digging box, and a cotton rope ladder. Perhaps she should splurge on one thing that wasn’t exactly necessary. Shelby’s gaze froze on the perfect item. She imagined Brianna’s small children bursting with joy. Yes, itsy bitsy rat sweaters!

Shelby crammed the back of her VW Bug with rat gear, including a terrarium that was wrapped in about five yards of packing plastic. Hopefully, the rats would come with a little carrier. Goodness, Shelby would need a box cutter or something to get into that extremely well-packaged terrarium.

She slammed the car door and zipped back inside to choose her pair of rats. Or was that a brace of rats, as in a brace of rabbits? Anyway, her care package wouldn’t help if Brianna was saddled with grumpy rodents and so Shelby took her time. The shop owner brought out each rat for her to hold. After every encounter, Shelby filled out a questionnaire of her own making concerning the rat’s personality, activity level, and intelligence.

Three rodents stood out above the pack … um … what was a group of rats called? She took a moment to look up the answer on her phone. Well, “brace” was only used if the animals were killed during a hunt. A brace of pheasant or rabbits. Ah, a mischief of rats … or a plague. Hmmm … these rats were clearly part of a mischief, just look at their adorable whiskers and long, slithering tails. Brianna’s kiddos were going to shriek with joy when she arrived at the doorstep. In fact, Brianna herself just might join in. Shelby paused a moment as a mental picture of her best friend shrieking paraded across her mind.

Hmmm … it did appear that she was shrieking from something other than joy. But that was the limitation of an imagination, after all. Shelby’s imagination had always been a bit on the rambunctious side and surely Brianna would have no cause to shriek for anything other than pure delight.

One of the three was pure white with red eyes, one was black and white spotted, and one was a nice healthy tan. Bald rats came in all the same color varieties as their furry brethren. A quick search on her phone revealed that female rats were far less smelly than their male counterparts. Shelby tried to wave the owner over. Instead, she got the attention of a bright-eyed teen whose hair clips, earrings, and nose ring were all shaped like tropical fish.

“Are these three males or females?”

The teen laughed and pointed at the side of the terrarium which gave vital info on every rat available. “You’ve got two bucks and a doe there,” she said.

“Hmmm … .” Shelby peered closer at the available rodents. “What do you think would be more problematic for a first-time rat owner: the worry of unexpected rat babies, or the concern of owning the oh-so-slightly-less-tame rat right over there that is galloping around the terrarium and climbing all those ropes and shredding the toilet paper tube into itsy bitsy bits before rolling around in the rubble and climbing the rope again?”

“Well, that galloping, climbing, shredding rat does look like a lot of fun.”

Shelby felt the worry that had been gathering between her shoulder blades ease. “She does, doesn’t she? Oh! Do you have little bows that we could artfully—but safely—tie around them for gifting purposes?”

“Oh, yeah. We have tons of bows in all kinds of colors. Most people by them for dogs, but I don’t see why rats can’t be fashionable too.”

Shelby nodded at the girl, noting again her tropical fish accessories. “Truer words were never spoken. Let’s put these two aside, then I’ll need a rat care book before you show me those bows.”

After a bit of scrounging, the girl finally found a dusty copy of You and Your Rat in the back room as well as a rat bathing kit, carrot flavored toothpaste, and a teeny tiny soft-bristle rat toothbrush.

The decorative bows were displayed next to some amazing rat-shaped earrings that would be perfect for Brianna and a set of rat cufflinks that were sure to amaze Gerald. Shopping finally complete, Shelby rushed out the door with the white rat from her personality chart and the slightly-less-tame-but-still-wildly-friendly female rat who had charming brown spots, one white ear, and one brown one.

Now, all she had to do was finish the promised casserole and zip these charming animals to their new home. She closed her eyes for a moment, imagining the joyful shrieks of Brianna’s three preschool-aged children as she presented the adorable rodents with the soft red bows (very safely) Velcroed around their necks. She blinked. That was odd. Her best friend’s shrieks joined that of her children in Shelby’s glorious vision of friendship success. Odd. They were once again not shrieks of joy. She took a deep breath to dispel the inaccurate vision and zoomed out of the parking lot. This was going to be the best surprise of she and Brianna’s long friendship. Shelby escorted her two newly-purchased rats up the narrow steps to her garage apartment to get a few things ready for their big debut.